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GUEST OPINION: Is Weill really worthy of an SSU honorary doctorate?

  • 6/9/2010: B7: [CLOSE TO HOME]

    3/23/2009: A1: Peter Phillips

    PC: Peter Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Sonoma State University. SSU contributed photo

Sonoma State University has announced that philanthropists Joan and Sanford Weill will be recognized as the 2012 honorary degree recipients at SSU's graduation ceremony on May 12. The Weills recently donated $12 million to the Green Music Center Fund. This donation enabled SSU to complete the main concert hall, the adjoining lawn and commons performance venues, officially named the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons.

Sanford (Sandy) Weill is the former CEO of Citigroup. Weill created Citigroup in 1998 through a merger with Travelers Group. In 1997, he was the highest paid CEO in the country at $230 million. Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $1.4 billion in 2006. However, the New York Times on April 5 reported that he has recently lost his billionaire status.

Weill was a primary player in the removal of the Glass-Steagal Act during the Clinton administration. Rescinding the act allowed Wall Street investment firms to gamble with their depositors' money held in affiliated commercial banks, leading to the housing crisis in 2008. The International Herald Tribune, on Jan. 4, 2010, described Weill as once viewed as a "brilliant deal maker, while now critics cast him as the architect of a shoddily constructed, unmanageable financial supermarket whose troubles have sideswiped investors, employees and average citizens."

Robert Scheer in the Nation Magazine described Weill as a "jolly good scoundrel" and "the man who shattered our economy." In a piece on the Huffington Post on Nov. 17, 2010, Scheer pointed out how Weill bailed out of Citigroup before the crash, "laughing all the way to the bank."

Weill paid $31 million in late 2010 for a 362-acre estate and vineyard in Sonoma County. He brought with him carpetbags of money, a pile of which he donated to SSU President Ruben Armi?na's Green Music Center. Jump to May 12, graduation at SSU, Sandy Weill and his wife Joan will be awarded an honorary doctorate. Many will ask, "what for?" Is this a doctorate honoring anything besides being the largest recent donor to the Green Music Center? It seems to smack of buying the honor instead of earning it.

In this case, there was not a vote of approval from the faculty and students. The chairman of the faculty, Ben Ford, stated on Monday, "It is certainly accurate to say that the decision to recommend the honorary degrees to the Board of Trustees was solely the president's and was not a result of a recommendation from a faculty and student committee."

Previous honorary SSU doctorate recipients have been primarily local community leaders with decades of regional merit. Included in these ranks are Herb Dwight, who has distinguished himself throughout his life as a highly respected engineer and prominent business and community leader; Belva Davis, a highly regarded reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area; Bernie Goldstein, provost and vice president of academic affairs at SSU; Edward R. Stolman of Glen Ellen, past president and chairman of the Federation of American Hospitals; and Donald Green, a prominent leader in the telecommunications industry. Green founded three regional companies, Digital Telephone Systems, Optilink Corp. and Advanced Fibre Communications, and became know as the "father of Telecom Valley."

Many Sonoma county folks are not taking kindly to a near-billionaire with tainted money receiving a honorary doctorate from Sonoma State University without decades of regional accomplishments for which to be truly honored. Thousands of people who lost their homes through foreclosures in Sonoma County might like to have something to say about such an award. Shame on Armi?na for arranging such an outrageous gesture and dishonoring graduation for the class of 2012.

Peter Phillips, a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University for 18 years, is president of the Media Freedom Foundation/Project Censored.

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